Three Parts Dead (2012) is a wonderfully inventive story. Max Gladstone blends a plethora of ideas, ranging from vampires to magic to steampunk technology and adds interesting characters and a plot that is predictable but still enjoyable. The result is memorable.
Tara is a recently expelled student in the art of the Craft. A Craftsman or Craftswoman is the equivalent of a magician or sorcerer, someone who has learned how to use the energies of the world to do things that would otherwise be impossible. Tara’s fall from the Hidden Schools — think of a floating university for sorcerers — was both literal and logical: she had to fight her way out of the school before being physically dropped from its heights. Tara’s story is central to the book as she goes from expelled student to local healer to temporary employee for one of the large firms that traffic in Craft-enabled work.
In the city of Alt Columb, the god of fire, Kos, has been killed. This is critical to the city, as his power serves as its driving force. Gladstone creates a unique (and very cool) steampunk framework by which Kos’s power serves as fuel for the city and also as a sort of currency. The priests who serve Kos are naturally distraught at his death and the second- and third-order effects that threaten to throw the world into chaos.
Tara and her senior partner Ms. Kenvarian are sent in response to this catastrophe. Between ascertaining the cause of Kos’s death and preparing for the legal consequences (both theological and secular) that follow, they are heavily tested. Working with Abelard, the monk who was tending the shrine to Kos when he died, and Cat, the vampire junkie/local cop, things begin to get complicated in a hurry.
The war between humans and Gods in Three Parts Dead is fascinating. While the idea of humans learning to harness the power of the stars, the earth and their own life force is nothing new, the fact that it enabled them to fight and win a war with the gods is more provocative. The lasting damage that was done to the planet, the catastrophic upheaval for the normal populace and the eventual peace provide solid support to the logical construct that the world rests on. I also liked the fact that working with magic is not for the faint of heart, that using it has lasting consequences and that normal people don’t trust people who use magic; it makes perfect sense. At the basis of Three Parts Dead is an almost common-sense approach to fantasy. I loved it.
As John said, Three Parts Dead really is “wonderfully inventive.” Totally unique. I enjoyed the story but felt a little lost in the world sometimes — it’s so inventive that I never felt quite grounded. I did, however, like the characters and the story.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version which was read by Claudia Alick. It took me a while to warm up to her because at first she has one of those rhythms that sounds like she’s reading to children, but I sped her up a bit and that helped. I also think her reading smoothed out a bit as the story went on. I think we both got more comfortable and compatible a couple of hours into the audio.
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Um, yeah. My name is Marion and I want to file a fairness complaint against this writer? Um, Max Gladstone? Well, not against him exactly, against his book, Three Parts Dead. Well, not against the book itself exactly, because the book is great. You guys should read it.
But no, seriously, you’re the universal fairness guys and it’s universally unfair that this book, which was Gladstone’s first novel, should be so good. Really. Not fair.
See, it’s like this. The first novel a writer publishes should have something that needs fixing. It doesn’t even have to be big. I know that most writers’ first published novel is not the first novel they’re written, but still. So when I find a book like this; solid world-building, a cohesive magic system, interesting characters, that also has a fascinating story, great descriptions, snappy dialogue… you see where I’m going with this? What am I supposed to say, as a reviewer? “The book is great, you guys should read it?” What kind of a review is that? It looks like I’m not doing my job.
My review looks like I didn’t read it closely, like I just sucked it down and enjoyed every second of it, and I did, but… that just isn’t right.
Oh, I probably should tell you what it’s about. It’s a second-world fantasy, where a transactional kind of magic works, and there are, or have been, gods. In one of the few remaining cities that are ruled by a god, Kos the Everburning, Kos suddenly dies. Gods do die, but when Tara Abernathy, a newly graduated practitioner of the Craft, and her ruthless mentor come to city to represent the Church of Kos against his spiritual creditors, pretty soon Tara figures out the Kos didn’t die of natural causes. She investigates in a bustling, cosmopolitan port city, uncovering not only an evil scheme but bigotry, bias and corruption. Tara is a sympathetic character who begins making ruthless choices by the end of the book, because that’s what needed.
Then there’s this other guy, the faithful Novice Technician Abelard, who has to come to grips with the death of his god, and now you’re thinking, “Oh, well, it’s Terry Pratchett,” only it’s not. And there’s a ship captain vampire and an addict cop (kinda) and gargoyles.
It’s awesome. There is no way I can write a piercing, insightful review that shows off how smart I am. Nothing here that lets me exercise my rapier-sharp wit, you know? And that’s just not fair.
I know that Gladstone published Three Parts Dead in 2013 and there are at least four more books in the series, so you can’t do anything about that. I think an adequate adjustment would be for me to win a comfortable lottery jackpot — not like that Powerball one, but you know, something reasonable. Especially because I’m going to have to buy all the other CRAFT books to read now, so I’m thinking about $30 million? $30 million seems fair to me.
Your complaint has been filed. Due to an unusually high volume of complaints recently, our response time has lengthened, but we will respond to your call in the order received. You should expect a response within no more than 1,957 years. Have a nice lifetime.
Thanks to my trusty Kindle, I toted along all of Max Gladstone’s CRAFT SEQUENCE novels on a recent hiking/camping trip, as I’ve been meaning to read them based on my colleagues’ positive reviews. Since I read all six one after the other, you can probably deduce I’m in full agreement with their judgments. Rather than an individual review for each, I’m going to review the series as a whole, without spoilers and actually without any plot summary since the other individual reviews cover that nicely. I have, however, assigned the usual star rating for each in the list below.
I read the books in chronological order, which (so far) runs like this
- Last First Snow 5 stars
- Two Serpents Rise 4 stars
- Three Parts Dead 4 stars
- Four Roads Cross 5 stars
- Full Fathom Five 4.5 stars
- Ruin of Angels 4 stars
Reading the series in chronological order meant the Craft’s weird mix of the fantastic, the urban, and the corporate/legal in Last First Snow was wholly fresh to me (possibly other authors have done this melding, but I hadn’t come across it before save [kind of] Wolfram & Hart in Angel) and I absolutely loved it. So much so that I kept excitedly relating the various expressions of that mix to my wife and son as we hiked along on our trails: “So it begins with, like, a 3D PowerPoint presentation at an urban planning meeting and becomes an argument about gentrification between grass roots protestors and a huge corporation run by a skeleton …” or “but he can’t because if he breaks the contract …” or “plumbing, it deals a lot with plumbing …”
The ways in which Gladstone uses fantasy’s ability to allow the metaphoric to become literal is wonderfully fun (and sometimes funny). Seriously, what can better convey the idea of a “faceless corporation” than a literally faceless CEO? Or the soul-sucking impact of materialism better than money that literally comes from your soul? The CRAFT world as clear analog for our own adds a stimulating intellectual/social/philosophical depth to the series, one that should provoke some hard thinking (and self-examination) in any reader.
The themes/subjects are timely and important: gentrification, the clash of tradition and progress, materialism, colonialism, the positives and negatives of religion and capitalism, refugees, atonement both personal and social for past sins, several more -isms, and especially responsibility across a myriad of applications: civic, corporate, journalistic, religious, personal and inter-personal. These are tough questions to wrestle with and wrestle the characters do; Gladstone does not insult us by implying there are easy or painless answers here.
Of course, if you’re going to try and make people wrestle with big ideas in a fiction series, you need to keep them reading, which means character, plot, and style, and with some minor variance amongst the six works, Gladstone mostly excels at all three.
Characters are richly sophisticated throughout. That aforementioned skeleton CEO — the Red King — for instance, would have been wholly stock (evil corporate bigwig who cares for nothing but padding his bank accounts) but instead had multiple layers of complexity to him ranging from deeply personal motivation to a true (I thought) desire to improve his city. His direct adversary, Temoc, is also richly complex. After all, it’s easy to root for the grass-roots underdog as he stands up to the corporate “Man,” until one realizes that he’s the priest of a religion whose gods call for blood sacrifice. D’oh! I’m about as atheistic as one could get, and can’t stand cigarettes, but I still found myself mourning the loss of a god alongside the chain-smoking priest of that religion. In fact, time and again I found myself empathizing with (or sympathizing with) characters whose personalities and/or actions and/or goals I did not like at all. That’s the mark of good characterization in my mind. And the characters I did like from the start, I mostly loved: Izza the street-tough girl, Elayne, the crisply coolly competent Craftswoman lawyer, and a host of others both major and minor. I also, many times, made note of Gladstone’s facility with small domestic scenes/details, which serve to both flesh out characters and also act as counterpoints to big flashy scenes such as battles, huge blow-up arguments, or rides on giant dragons.
Plotting is probably where I found the most variance. Last First Snow I found consistently tense and gripping while Ruin of Angels, while still thoroughly enjoyable, I thought bogged down in places and felt overly long. And Two Serpents Rise felt a little thin in spots. But really, I enjoyed each and every one, my favorites being Last First Snow and Four Roads Cross. I’d also say that Gladstone generally has a deft hand at twists and turns, often shifting the narrative just as the reader thinks they can predict what’s going to happen. That unpredictability is a particular strength throughout.
Finally, as noted, the writing is at a consistently high level. The prose is smooth and can be startling at times. Gladstone is promiscuously inventive and one of my favorite aspects is how we get these throw-away lines like “they’d questions him after the zombie revolt two years ago though he played no part in that” or “Sansilva stores cured their wares pre-sale. Over the next week the thieves and fences … would suffer insanity, depression…” The books can be surprisingly funny, and while every now and then things may tip over into sentimentality, generally there’s a truly moving wealth of emotion underlying much of the action. The magic can be a bit fuzzy, though it does clear up and fill out the more you read, but I never felt that to be a major issue; maybe occasionally distracting, is all.
If you haven’t read any of the CRAFT SEQUENCE books yet, I highly recommend reading them in chronological order and all in a row. You won’t tire of the settings or tone, and all the little cross-connections, bits of referenced history, and set-ups for future events will stand out all the more clearly. I’m glad I finally got around to this series and look forward to the next installment.